Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Some Seldom-Heard Tracks by Remmy Ongala

Swahili music was terra incognita to me until one day in the summer of 1984. I was visiting Edmund Ogutu, a Kenyan friend of mine. He'd brought out a stack of East African 45's and was playing them for me. I certainly enjoyed the sounds of the Kilimambogo Brothers and DO7 Shirati Jazz, similar in some ways to other African music I was familiar with, yet refreshing in their rustic straightforwardness. Then Edmund brought out a red-label Polydor 45. The song was "Mariamu" and it was by a Tanzanian group called Super Matimila. From the first bars I was completely transported. Here was something that clearly shared the DNA of Congo music but had mutated in various subtle ways. Obviously the fact that it was in Swahili rather than Lingala was one point of difference, but what really struck me was the singer, who had a jazzy, improvisational vocal style that was cool and warm, friendly and reserved at the same time. Looking at the record label I discovered that this person was named Remmy Ongala. Edmund couldn't tell me anything about him.

That's where things stood for a couple of years, until I read an article by Ron Sakolsky in Sound Choice, a long-forgotten music magazine. Ron had lived in Tanzania and, having been similarly transformed by the music of Remmy Ongala, wanted to tell the great man's story. It turned out that Remmy was originally from Kindu, in the Congo. He began his musical career in that country (soon renamed Zaïre), and migrated to Uganda, ending up in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania in 1978, where he joined Orchestra Makassy, a band led by his uncle. Three years later he departed to join Super Matimila and soon became its leader.

I got in touch with Ron and he sent me dubs of more records by Remmy Ongala, wonderful songs like "Ndumila Kuwili" and "Mnyonge Hana Haki." Finally in 1988, WOMAD Records in Britain released a full-length anthology of Remmy Ongala's East African recordings, Nalilia Mwana (
Womad WOMAD 010).
Remmy and Orchestra Super Matimila performed at the WOMAD Festival that year and in 1989 recorded their first "professional" album, Songs for the Poor Man (
Realworld CDRW6), followed in 1992 by Mambo (Realworld CDRW22). Both of these albums are fine, but to my mind the intimacy and immediacy, the soul of the Tanzanian recordings has been lost in the transition to a "professional," "modern" recording studio. Nalilia Mwana, which was never issued on CD, has long been out of print, and as far as I know there are no plans to reissue it, although an edited version of the title track appeared on 1995's Sema (Womad Select WSCD002).

It pains me that the general public is unfamiliar with the true, authentic sounds of Remmy Ongala and Orchestra Super Matimila, the music that is known and loved by millions of people in East Africa. To rectify this injustice I present several tracks from Nalilia Mwana and from another album that was issued only in East Africa, 1988's On Stage With Remmy Ongala (Ahadi AHDLP 6007). The song descriptions are from the liner notes:

"Nalilia Mwana" (I Cry for a Child) is the lament of a woman who cannot give birth: "Mola, I cry to you, Mola, I beseetch you, what did I do to deserve this misfortune. A child isn't something that you can buy... To the mother a child never grows up. Even if it were lame, or ugly like Remmy, it would still be a child."

Remmy Ongala & Orchestra Super Matimila - Nalilia Mwana

Our next selection is also from Nalilia Mwana. "Sika Ya Kufa" (The Day I Die) tells the sad tale of a man who is dying: "Beauty is finished, youth is finished, intelligence has left. But the house I built remains and my children are crying. A corpse has no companions - all my friends run away from me. Whereas we used to eat and drink together. Now they are frightened of me. Now I am like the devil."
Remmy Ongala & Orchestra Super Matimila - Sika Ya Kufa

"Ndumila Kuwili," (Don't Speak With Two Mouths), our last from Nalilia Mwana, deals with that age-old problem, jealousy: "We used to be friends. We lived together like brothers. But I am surprised, brother - don't speak with two mouths. Playing off one person against another. Jealousy and discord are not the right way.""

Remmy Ongala & Orchestra Super Matimila - Ndumila Kuwili

"Kifo" (Death) was my favorite song on Songs for the Poor Man, so when I received a copy of On Stage with Remmy Ongala, which includes the original, I was curious to hear how the two versions compared. This is a case where, in my opinion, the "remake" is an improvement on the original, which is a mighty fine tune already. The lyrics: "Death, you took my wife. My child cries every day. 'Father, where is my mother?' But I can't find the words. The tears just fall down my face. Because of you, Death."

Remmy Ongala & Orchestra Super Matimila - Kifo

A remake of "Narudi Nyumbabi," from On Stage with Remmy Ongala, was featured on Mambo under the title "I Want to Go Home," and here the original is clearly superior. There's just something about the "low-tech" nature of the recording, and the Swahili lyrics, that just expresses the poignancy of the lyrics so much better: "I want to go home. I need to go back home. The place that is our home. Good or bad still home."

Remmy Ongala & Orchestra Super Matimila - Narudi Nyumbani

A couple of years ago I convinced Doug Paterson of the East African Music Page to compile a discography of Remmy Ongala's many recordings for the East African market. If you'd like more information on these, you are encouraged to consult it here.

Update: Thanks to reader Daan42, who passes on a link to an article about Remmy Ongala's current activities here.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your opinion that Remmy's more recent, "well-produced" stuff lost some of its soul. Although Mambo was my first exposure to the man's music, and its intensity makes it one of the few CDs I keep going back to. Similarly, I was never as enamoured of the Orchestra Makassy "Agwaya" recording - much preferred the older stuff, e.g. the RTD sessions cassette Matt had up some time ago. And Siku ya Kufa was a standout there - always felt that was more of a Remmy track. So fantastic that you've posted it! (When digging through some of my dansi orchestra stuff with Tanzanian expats at uni in UK, I was surprised that they seized upon Remmy's music - he remains massively popular both for his music as well as for speaking out against the ills of society. Apparently he had a stroke and was no longer as active - living at his home in Songea?)

Anonymous said...


zim said...

also agree with Daan and you. It was an epiphany hearing the tanzanian produced stuff after only hearing "songs for the porr man" previously, though that was ok, the music in tanzania was just much more alive.

John thanks for sharing your knowledge and all these musical treasures with us

presto said...

hello, I used to live in Tanzania (83/4)and became friends with Remmy and his family. When I returned to the UK I made an effort to get hold of a decaying 1/4 " master of 'the old stuff' and gave it to Womad who were not long established in Bristol. That's how Remmy got to come over etc. I#m glad to hear he's still around 'cos @i.ve not seen him for years...Simon

Anonymous said...

Usually I agree with you that production by outsiders sabotages African guitar music. And especially the slick, overdone Real World studio treatment. But in this case I disagree. Songs for the Poor Man is a brilliant, captivating cd. Kipenda Roho and Dole are little masterpieces. But then I also adore Mke Wangu from the Makassy Virgin release. (However, Remmy's Mambo cd on Real World was disappointing to me.)

Anonymous said...

The East African Music Page has been closed down my AOL. Is anybody informed if Doug will place all his wonderful information somewhere else?

Anonymous said...

I emailed Doug and he's informed me that he's saved the files & is working on finding a new webhost.

Anonymous said...

While I was in living in Tanzania a few years back (2002/3), it was reported that Remmy had become a born again Christian. If my memory serves me correctly he cut off his famous dreadlocks during a ceremony on the beach in Dar es Salaam. (a big deal for him, when he was born a "witchdoctor" instructed his mother that his hair should never be cut), whilst renouncing his former ungodly ways (!?!) I think the decision may have come about partly due to the influence by his friend Cosmas Chidimule (from Mlimani Park Orchestra), who was "born again" a few years before.

I believe Remmy's career was slowed down by his diabetes in the late 90's, but I do have a cassette that he put out around 2002...Will have to dig it out as I've been listening to his music a lot recently.

Anyway, as of 2003 he was no longer performing with his band, although he may have moved into gospel....

I prefer the mix of the "Mambo" cd, but I think the material is better on "Songs for the Poor Man". The "Mambo" cd fields one what must be one of the strongest vocal lineups ever in Remmy and Cosmas Chidimule, although their voices are quite similar, at times I can't tell which one of them is singing........

Mauya Omauya said...

Thanks John B for your awesome efforts. I am a Kenyan living in London and listening to the powerful lyrics of Remmy Ongala is so refreshing. It connects me with the soul of african music at its best. Remmy's tunes display a rare trait of talent and originality when compared with the current hits produces by an artist behind a laptop. His guitar blends well with the saxophone and vocals but its it is his message that lives in the hearts of East africans. Growing in the village of western Kenya, my first humming was Remmy's Narudi Nyumbani, a rallying call for all to get back home, work hard in the grass roots to empower society. It is Remmy who popularised the saying "Mama ni mama, mam hana mfano- Mama is mama, there is none to compare with her"
It is Remmy who confronted Death head-on in his "Kifo" and disarmed this feared eventuality. Kifo or death is still the song we play during funerals in my village.
His sassy voice and infusion of pro-people message with dance earned him his famour nickname "Sauti ya mnyonge" or The voice of the weak while he described himself as Sura mbaya Remmy Ongala (Ugly Remmy).
While he has slowed down, his tunes shall live long, his mark is clear in the music scene. He is a perfect son of the soil.
Kindly post any collection by Mbaraka Mwishehe another great one from those East African years.

Cheers John B.

Ruth kennedy said...

Brilliant pages. Thank you so much. I was searching for *Nalilia Mwana*
because I had a cassette of it that I wore out. It is quite incredible that it was never a CD. He had such a wonderful voice. It was the most life-enhancing album. Great man. You can see his funeral on You Tube.

David said...

He's new to me, but I have found reading these comments really helpful in filling out the story & gioving me a sense of his importance. Thanks to John for the music & everyone else for their memories!